How America's 'heroin city' is turning itself around
RUTLAND, Vt. — Rutland is fed up with heroin.
Take Tom VanEps. He and his neighbors used to just watch, disgusted, as dealers worked Baxter Street, their buyers sometimes littering the ground with used syringes.
Now, he said, they confront the dealers and the junkies.
"We'll make them throw their crap right down that storm drain right there, because that hurts them more than anything," VanEps said recently, sitting on his front steps in the hard-hit Northwest neighborhood. "We've all got kids. We don't want them walking down the street with bare feet and get a needle in their foot."
Authorities credit a variety of police actions, drug treatment programs, social services, new businesses and jobs, and — perhaps most of all — community determination with reducing crime and restoring a sense of hope to this place that has become the poster child for the heroin epidemic sweeping America.
Rutland, population 16,500, is winning national recognition for its efforts. The city's police this month will give a presentation at the Chicago conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, chosen after a competitive process, about how a small city confronts addiction.
Crimes including burglaries, vehicle theft and noise complaints are way down, in some cases as much as half, since 2012. A drug treatment center that opened in 2013 is helping more than 400 patients. Since 2011, 92 babies have been born to women in recovery — a promising sign that means 92 fewer babies born addicted to opiates.
No one claims the challenge has been conquered. While many crimes are down, actual drug offenses remain steady.
"One thing this does demonstrate to us, especially when you look at the drug problem, is that those type of crimes, your property crimes, burglaries, larcenies, shoplifting, are usually the type of crimes that are driven by drug addiction," said acting Police Chief David Covell.
In the 19th century, Rutland was a major economic engine of Vermont, where rail lines converged to carry the marble quarried from surrounding communities to the country and the world. It was only three decades ago that competition began closing the quarries; more recently, Rutland lost its title as Vermont's second-largest city.
Many people moved to the country, and what had once been neat single-family homes were divided into apartment houses, many owned by absentee landlords, fertile ground for drug dealers. And when authorities clamped down on the abuse of prescription opioids such as oxycodone, heroin filled the void.
Rutland began building a reputation as "heroin city" in spring 2013, when the police chief at the time, James Baker, held a news conference at which he called the rise of drug addiction "mind-boggling" and said it "rips the social fabric of these neighborhoods apart." The following January, Gov. Peter Shumlin garnered national headlines when he devoted his entire State of the State speech to confronting heroin and other opiates.
Journalists descended on Rutland, eager to tell the story of drug-fueled ugliness in a part of the country long idealized as rustic, idyllic. An illustration of a lumberjack type sitting on a stump and shooting up accompanied a Rolling Stone article titled "The New Face of Heroin."
Though authorities and politicians brought publicity, the problem with drugs — not just heroin — had been snowballing for years, and the city had already begun to confront it.
Locals say Rutland hit bottom in 2012, when 17-year-old Carly Ferro, a star athlete with a bright future, was hit and killed by a car while leaving her job in the Northwest neighborhood. The driver, now in prison, had been huffing chemicals to get high.
"That was a galvanizing event for the city that made a lot of people realize that if we are going to solve these problems, the community needed to participate and take some ownership," said Covell, the police chief. "Just a strict law-enforcement approach isn't going to solve everything."
At the end of 2012, the city created Project Vision, an organization that brings together a variety of groups and individuals — churches, police, social workers, substance abuse experts, businesses and others — so each can do its part in fighting the drug problem.
"When you feel the most hopeless is when you don't have a plan," said Joe Kraus, chairman of Project Vision, which operates with no budget but now includes more than 100 entities united to fight opiates. "We all came together, we put together plans, we're working together, and every day we're making progress."
Now, police often bring social workers along on calls. While police handle the crime, the social workers address the underlying reason for the call, be it drugs, domestic violence or some other ill.
Statewide, Vermont has expanded access to drug treatment, reduced waiting lists for treatment, made available the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, and expanded diversion programs for some people arrested on drug charges.
Chelsea Cole, a 31-year-old Rutlander and former nursing assistant, began drinking heavily at age 18. By 25, she was using pills. By 28, it was heroin. She knew it was time to get help when she found herself hiding under attic insulation from the police after she missed a date in drug court.
She's now been clean for two years and said she couldn't have done it without the support systems Rutland has created.
"I still see some negative comments, but I really think people are starting to understand that this is a crisis, a health crisis, and it needs to be treated as such; it's not just a moral failing," said Cole, a mother of two.
Other forces are at work in Rutland, including economic ones.
Green Mountain Power bought a Rutland-based utility company in 2012 and promised to help revitalize downtown. Now, the occupancy rate is 96 percent, up from about 85 percent three years ago. Last month, the utility proclaimed Rutland the solar capital of New England, generating more sun power per capita than any other city in the region.
A nonprofit group has been working to buy and demolish or redevelop blighted properties in Northwest, the area that generates the most police calls. A lot where a notorious rundown home was just razed, to much relief, is becoming a park.
While the new businesses and revamping of neighborhoods haven't erased the drugs and addiction, they've helped supplant the hopelessness, Rutlanders say. Acknowledgment was just the first step.
"When I was a kid I didn't say, 'I want to be an addict when I grow up,"' Cole said. "I think people are starting to realize that instead of saying 'those junkies,' it's everywhere."